Director: Matt Ross.
Screenplay: Matt Ross.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, George McKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, Trin Miller, Elijah Stevenson, Teddy Van Ee, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle.
“We have to do what we’re told. Some fights you can’t win. The powerful control the lives of the powerless. That’s the way the world works. It’s unjust and it’s unfair but that’s just too bad. We have to shut up and accept it! Well… fuck that!”
In a year vastly consisting of the superhero (take your pick), the sequel (Independence Day: Resurgence), the reboot (Ghostbusters) and the disappointing (Hail, Caeser!), 2016 was beginning to have a very underwhelming vibe and a lack of originality. Leave it then to the indie circuit to take a firm hold of the fading year and offer the best film so far. It’s with absolute conviction that I can say, actor turned director, Matt Ross has finally delivered a film that satisfies and resonates. Admittedly, there has been the occasional delight in 2016 but none more delightful than Captain Fantastic.
Plot: Distant from the constructs of societal pressures, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) dedicates his life to teaching his six children how to become well-rounded and intelligent individuals while living in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. However, when a family tragedy strikes, Ben and his brood are forced to leave their self-sustainable home and experience the outside world which brings forth new experiences and challenges for the reclusive family.
It’s often said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but in the case of Captain Fantastic I had already done so. Last year, I came across a still from the film and the photo spoke volumes to me. After hearing some positive word-of-mouth, I had an underlying feeling that this was a film I would really enjoy. A film that looked like it had something to say. I awaited its arrival with great anticipation and I can now confirm that it was absolutely worth the wait.
It’s not unlike Wes Anderson’s work in its look and its approach. It shares similarities with the dysfunctional family of The Royal Tenenbaums or the cross-country, brotherly relations of The Darjeeling Limited. It’s as vibrant in its colourful pallet and as deep in its characterisation and commentary on achieving a meaningful existence.
It’s no surprise to hear that this is a biographical account of director Matt Ross’ own experiences. It feels genuine and his affection and understanding of the characters, and their moral standpoint, shines through.
There’s a political edge and intelligence to the film. The unorthodox family live their lives by the philosophy of Plato’s The Republic and have regular discourses on dialectical materialism. Mortensen’s Ben talks with his oldest son Bo (George McKay) about whether he’s expressing Marxist or Trotskyist views and instructs his other children in the works of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. They embrace Buddhism as a philosophy and reject any form of organised religion. At one point they even question why they should celebrate Christmas, preferring instead to celebrate ‘Noam Chomsky Day’ where each child receives a gift on the birthday of the intellectual historian and political activist.
Needles to say that this is a family who reject capitalism and the consumerist construct that it has birthed. They prefer their off-grid, nonconformist living and struggle to adapt to society when they are finally forced to confront it.
What’s interesting, though, is that Ross doesn’t play this entirely one sided. He does actually question Ben’s motivation and his responsibilities as a parent. He pairs him with a very different patriarch in Frank Langella’s wealthy, capitalist father-in-law who obviously doesn’t approve of Ben’s freedom of expression or alternative parental views.
The theme of the film is about striking a balance in life and that’s exactly what Ross achieves in the structure of his film; it’s about the intellectual and the cultural, awareness and ignorance and he manages to bring an emotional sensitivity to the proceedings without being overly sentimental.
As mentioned it has a distinct Wes Anderson flavour but it’s also a reminder of the same misfits of Little Miss Sunshine. Where that film created its characters to be dysfunctionally comedic, Captain Fantastic‘s feel more authentic and three-dimensional.
Spearheading them is an absolutely outstanding Viggo Mortensen. There’s a subtlety and depth to his performance and he captures the nuisances of being a strong-minded and arrogant individual while also affording a tender and loving fatherly figure to shine through. It’s not flashy and there’s no grandstanding involved. Mortensen’s too wise and too good an actor to even have to do that and it’s in his subtlety that he allows the space for his young co-stars to have their moment too. It’s a confident but very unselfish performance that anchors the entire film.
A poignant social commentary that benefits greatly from all its little quirks and attention to detail that capture the essence of life itself. It’s funny, heartbreaking and uplifting all in equal measure and (like Mortensen’s sublime lead performance) Matt Ross delivers it with both hard truths and a loving affection. A beautiful film.
Trivia: Viggo Mortensen’s red-patterned shirt that he’s wearing in the wedding scene is the same shirt he wore in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner in 1991. A film based on the Bruce Springsteen song Highway Patrolman.